Most clients have a wealth of data they don’t know what to do with, meaning firms have a vast opportunity to deploy data to boost their clients' brands.

Using data in storytelling isn’t for every firm. But if you’d like to delve in, here are some tips based on our experience developing a successful data-driven public relations practice. 

Companies across every industry are generating more data than ever before. The amount of data produced is doubling every three years, as information streams in from the web, mobile phones, sensors, payment platforms and other sources. Traditionally, corporate data has been relegated to internal reports or niche presentations. Yet public relations firms that aren't tapping into this are missing out on a key opportunity for telling their clients' stories.

You don’t need to be a numbers maven to understand data and use it to illuminate the unique value of a company's services or products. The role of public relations professionals is to ask the right questions, understand the significance of key points and put them in context. Blasting out random facts and figures or releasing spreadsheets with thousands of rows doesn’t work. Using data effectively requires being selective and couching information in the context of the narrative you're communicating and the broader media conversation. The data has to tell a story — otherwise, no one will pay attention.

The first step to working with data starts long before you’re looking at numbers. Begin by asking: What story do we want to tell, and how would data make it stronger? What publications, reporters or analysts would care about this? What would be most relevant to current events and the public zeitgeist? As in public relations more broadly, the most powerful way to use data is to tell an interesting story that promotes a brand indirectly.

When you’re ready get ahold of statistics, your process will depend on whether you have access to a dedicated group of data scientists or analysts. If you do, your job is to work closely with the team to set priorities for pulling data. Ideally, you will constantly be feeding the team timely ideas, as they continuously provide you with results that you transform into pitches. It’s important to have many irons in the fire, since only a fraction will pan out.

At The Bulleit Group, we took this approach with our client Jumpshot, a marketing analytics firm that measures clickstream data. Following the 2016 presidential election, the media was zeroing in on the role of fake news, and Facebook initially denied that it had served a pivotal role in enabling the phenomenon. We asked Jumpshot to draw on its data capabilities to contribute hard facts to the conversation. Its analysis revealed that Facebook accounted for more than 50% of traffic to more than 20 fake news sites, and only 20% of traffic to three reputable publications. Our media outreach with these findings led to news stories in Poynter, Vanity Fair, USA Today, Quartz and other publications. We also worked with Jumpshot to develop integrated social media campaigns. The strategy not only secured media placements for our client's brand, but also helped introduce it to new audiences and showcase the power of its analytics platform. Journalists now view Jumpshot as a valuable and trusted data source and have continued requesting updated information.

If your client doesn’t have a dedicated data analyst for you to work with, get creative. Consider reaching out to divisions such as product marketing, inbound sales or customer success teams. For example, we at The Bulleit Group worked with the CTO and the customer success team at Gigster, an on-demand platform for freelance software developers. We asked them to pull data demonstrating how its artificial intelligence tools made their developers more productive, which contributed to a 90% customer satisfaction rating. We incorporated those statistics into the conversations and presentation decks with Gartner analysts to enrich the briefings. This led to Gartner adding Gigster to their 2017 list of “Cool Vendors in Business and IT Services.” Rather than dealing in generalities, data can provide evidence for selling points that set your client apart from competitors.

If you were working with a larger company like Starbucks (who is not our client), you might come up with the idea to pitch articles on the psychology of music played in stores. Your first step would be to identify writers and publications that could be interested. Then think about which department would have access to this data. Perhaps you’d ask Starbucks’ marketing team or another department to provide data on the music they’ve found increases revenues and customer satisfaction. Next, you’d pitch the story and hopefully place stories that enhance Starbucks’ brand.

Sometimes, clients will come to you with data they’ve already collected. In that case, you can play a key role in picking out data points and helping average readers understand their significance. We worked to convey insights from a May 2017 report on the future of work published by the Shift Commission, a group founded by Bloomberg Beta (a client) and New America. Our team sifted through the data-heavy report to highlight critical findings of interest to journalists. For example, we pointed out that nearly a quarter of the American workforce will be 55 or older by 2024 (more than double the share three decades earlier), and that this demographic was more likely to hold jobs affected by automation. This resulted in placements in The Atlantic, Fast Company, Next Avenue, and Voice of America.

The point of this isn’t to say that public relations firms should start hiring data scientists, but that they need to get savvy about working with data to tell effective stories. It’s not about how much data you have, but rather how you use it. Data works when it’s timely, carefully culled and geared to a specific target audience. As more and more data becomes available, it’s your job to assess how key information can be deployed most effectively. No two data programs are alike, so be prepared to get creative about crafting a custom solution that will help your clients get the most out of their data.